Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q: In recent weeks you have summarized 2021 at the strategic level. Now you’re going to predict what happens in and around Israel in 2022? Don’t you know that ‘from the day the temple was destroyed, prophecy was given to fools’?
A: I know. But things were so chaotic in recent days, particularly on the domestic political front, that I decided to take a chance, on the assumption that I can’t do worse than our politicians and strategists. Then too I can hope that, by the time I’m proven wrong, the reader will have forgotten, whereas if I turn out to be right, the reader will remember.
When a deputy minister from Meretz, retired IDF general Yair Golan, calls a group of marauding setters who deface Arab graves “subhuman”, you know that both the settlers and Israeli politics are hitting extremes. When an Arab member of Knesset, unprecedentedly addressing that assembly in Arabic to support a bill to deliver electricity to maverick Bedouin dwellings in the Negev, provokes a virtual riot by Likud MKs determined to delegitimize Israel’s democratic institutions, you know we are entering an interesting year. And when PM Bennett, in response, ‘loses it’ in a public display of unbridled rage, you have to wonder about the future of this government and this political system.
Hezbollah drones in the north, wayward rockets from Gaza in the south, and the enshrining by Iran of assassinated Quds Force general Soleimani as a virtual demi-god. The past week saw it all. And that, perversely, is my inspiration to predict the future.
Q: Okay, start with Iran: the Vienna talks, the ‘campaign between wars’ by Israel against Iran in Syria, and Hezbollah. What’s your prediction for the coming year?
A: The Vienna talks regarding renewal of the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal will conclude with some sort of agreement, perhaps out-and-out renewal, perhaps some sort of preliminary or interim format. The signs of progress in Vienna cannot be ignored. Washington, which wants to clear the international decks in order to concentrate on China and Russia, will make concessions that leave Israel unhappy. But Israel is already adjusting: note media reports regarding the statement to the Security Cabinet last week by Major General Aharon Haliwa, new head of IDF Intelligence, recommending a new Vienna agreement as the ‘lesser evil’ compared to collapse of the talks.
At the end of the day, Israel cannot afford to allow anything to get in the way of ongoing strategic cooperation, including military nuts and bolts, with the United States. In the event of a new Vienna accord, Israel will be generously compensated militarily by the Biden administration. Washington will also agree to leave Israel a free hand in countering Iran’s drive for Levant hegemony and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
Q: You mentioned Hezbollah drones overflying Israel’s north. Could Hezbollah join in a new round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza? Will that happen in the year ahead? Another ‘Guardian of the Walls’ like last May? More slipping down the slippery slope toward a violent binational reality?
A: Hamas, egged on by Turkey’s President Erdogan, and Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, could again start an armed conflict. For this to happen would almost certainly require Israeli mistakes and provocations, for example on the Temple Mount or in Jerusalem’s Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood as in May. Such a scenario would this time also be premised on a Hamas assessment that growing Palestinian Authority/PLO weakness in the West Bank calls for a new Islamist bid for overall Palestinian leadership.
Once again, for at least a few days or weeks, friction and conflict between Arabs and Jews could be everywhere: Hamas rockets on Tel Aviv and Beersheba, clashes in mixed Arab-Jewish towns, rioting and settler-Palestinian clashes in the West Bank: the slippery slope leading to binational chaos. This time around we’ll see more action from Hamas rocket units based in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah could join in, at least to display symbolic Islamist support. The potential for all-out escalation will grow.
Will Bennett make the kind of mistakes in Jerusalem that Netanyahu made, provoking last May’s mini-war? That is less likely; Bennett is more cautious, and he and Defense Minister Gantz have put in place better coordination with both Ramallah and Amman. On the other hand, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is 86 and frail and was elected to a maximum of two four-year terms exactly 17 years ago, presides over a disgruntled West Bank Palestinian population and seems hard put to suppress Hamas and Islamic Jihad extremists.
Israel, by the same token, will be hard put in the year ahead to keep the PA afloat, both financially and in terms of governance under intense pressure. I would put another Guardian of the Walls-type conflict or something even worse at around a 60-40 likelihood in 2022.
Q: How will Israel in the coming year manage relations with the United States, and specifically with the Biden administration and the American Jewish community?
A: As projected above, Bennett won’t let an Iran nuclear deal in Vienna disrupt Israel-US relations. And Bennett’s government will continue to repair the Israeli-American Jewish relationship that Netanyahu so badly damaged. There will be mixed and non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, and this will at least briefly exacerbate tensions with Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox community.
Tensions with the Biden administration will arise over the Palestinian issue. Another slippery slope conflict is one potential catalyst, with Washington seeking to intervene to prevent escalation and shield Israel from the inevitable international condemnation of its actions, but demanding a price from Israel in return. A second catalyst could emerge from ill-considered pro-settler measures by Bennett and/or by Israeli right-religious provocations in East Jerusalem.
Bennett, lest we forget, feels duty bound now and then to yield to Israel’s messianic nationalists in an attempt to hold on to his electoral base--despite the protests of the left and center factions of his coalition. This could plunge Israel into trouble with the US under two scenarios: one, just noted, is another mini-war; a second is Biden administration anger over Israel-generated damage to prospects for a two-state solution. Here Washington will be backed as a matter of course by the European Union and perhaps by Israel’s new and old Arab state friends.
By-the-by, the Biden administration will continue to push this year for a reopened US consulate in Jerusalem that serves as de facto American embassy to the Palestinian Authority. At a minimum, Bennett will have to agree to a reopened PLO embassy in Washington. The fate of the Jerusalem consulate will depend on the overall health of US-Israel relations.
A third and more global area of potential US-Israel friction in the year ahead concerns Russia and China. As tensions almost certainly grow between Washington on the one hand and Moscow and/or China on the other, Israel could be caught in the middle. Israel needs close strategic coordination with Russia in Syria; not to mention the pro-Putin sentiments of many among its large Russian-speaking population. And Israel’s booming tech and commercial ties with China are already judged by Washington to be too intrusive.
Here it is very doubtful that the Israeli leadership team of PM Bennett, FM Lapid and DM Gantz possesses the strategic experience and diplomatic finesse to navigate Israel’s relations between competing superpower friends while prioritizing Washington. Look for damage.
Q: And elsewhere in the Middle East? More normalization agreements with Arab states?
A: Saudi Arabia is the prize. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is interested, but his father King Salman has balked. Normalization with Riyadh is likely to happen in 2022 only if the unsavory but dynamic MbS ascends to the throne. Oman, another candidate with a long history of informal relations with Israel, could follow the Saudi lead unless it fears angering Iran.
Q: On to Israeli politics: will the Bennett government survive the coming year?
A: This coalition is so fragile and so rife with contradictions that it is tempting to say it won’t survive. But two factors militate in favor of its continued existence on into mid-2023 and rotation at the helm between Bennett and Yair Lapid. One is genuine antipathy toward leader-of-the-opposition Netanyahu. With the exception of Raam leader Mansour Abbas, virtually everyone in this coalition detests Bibi. Indeed all, including Abbas, realize that their political careers could be doomed by coalition failure.
A second factor is the division within the parliamentary opposition between the right and religious parties on the one hand, and the six-mandate strong Joint (Arab) List on the other. This means that no matter how bent he and his followers are on Trump-style delegitimization of the Bennet-Lapid coalition, it is virtually impossible for Netanyahu to topple and replace the government by mustering 61 Knesset votes for an alternative coalition, as the law requires. And this in turn means that if the government does fall, there will be new elections. Right now and for the foreseeable future, no one wants new elections.
Meanwhile Israel’s economy, kept afloat by the hi-tech and natural gas sectors, will continue to survive the covid pandemic nicely.
Still, in the event of the kind of crisis of war and internal Jewish-Arab strife described above, desertions from the coalition cannot be ruled out. Here the prime candidate is Mansour Abbas, in the event he is hard pressed to condemn large-scale Arab casualties inflicted in Gaza or, worse, inside Israel. That would almost certainly mean new elections sometime in 2022 or early 2023. In this case, Bennett and his coalition partners have to hope that the current omicron mass infection rate, for which the public increasingly blames government mismanagement, is behind us and forgotten.
Q: Is there a bottom line here?
A: Expect the unexpected.